Thompson v. County of Franklin

Citation15 F.3d 245
Decision Date20 January 1994
Docket NumberD,No. 343,343
Parties-896 Dana Leigh THOMPSON, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. COUNTY OF FRANKLIN, William A. Hughes, Treasurer of Franklin County, Defendants-Appellees. ocket 92-9323.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)

Page 245

15 F.3d 245
73 A.F.T.R.2d 94-896
Dana Leigh THOMPSON, Plaintiff-Appellant,
COUNTY OF FRANKLIN, William A. Hughes, Treasurer of Franklin
County, Defendants-Appellees.
No. 343, Docket 92-9323.
United States Court of Appeals,
Second Circuit.
Argued Sept. 24, 1993.
Decided Jan. 20, 1994.

Arlinda F. Locklear, Jefferson, MD, for Appellant.

David E. Peebles, Syracuse, NY (Patrick M. Connors, Hancock & Estabrook, Syracuse, NY, of counsel), for Appellees.

Before: MESKILL, KEARSE and WINTER, Circuit Judges.

MESKILL, Circuit Judge:

This is an appeal from a judgment of the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York, McCurn, J., dismissing plaintiff's complaint on the ground

Page 246

that she lacks standing to challenge a county government's assessment and collection of taxes on her real property that she alleges is within the territorial boundaries of an Indian reservation. For the reasons stated below, we reverse and remand.

Plaintiff-appellant, Dana Leigh Thompson (Thompson), is an enrolled member of the federally recognized St. Regis Mohawk Indian Tribe (Tribe). On January 27, 1989, Thompson purchased sixty-eight acres of land (Property) located in the vicinity of both Franklin County, New York and the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation ("St. Regis Reservation" or "Reservation"). The Property, which is divided into two separate tax parcels, was purchased by Thompson in fee simple.

Commencing with the 1989 tax year, and continuing to present, the defendants-appellees, the County of Franklin and William A. Hughes, Treasurer of Franklin County (collectively "County"), assessed taxes on the Property. Thompson refuses to pay the taxes levied on the Property, however, on the ground that it is situated within the territorial boundaries of the St. Regis Reservation and, thus, beyond the reach of the County's taxing jurisdiction.

Relying on a series of agreements dating back to 1816 (1816 Conveyance Agreements), which convey to the state of New York (State) interests in several tracts of land within the boundaries of the St. Regis Reservation, the County rejected Thompson's claim that her Property lay beyond its territorial jurisdiction to tax. On August 24, 1992, the County filed a tax lien on the Property for the unpaid 1989 taxes. The tax lien, moreover, notified Thompson that outstanding property taxes remained for 1990, 1991 and 1992, in addition to 1989, and that the County intended to perfect title to the Property by December 28, 1992 if the taxes remained unpaid. As of August 1992, the total amounts of taxes claimed by the County on the Property were respectively $9,491.79 and $820.24.

On September 17, 1992, Thompson filed suit against the County in state court, pursuant to 25 U.S.C. Sec. 233, 1 seeking a declaration that her Property was immune from the County's power to tax real property and an injunction precluding the County from assessing and collecting taxes on the Property and from pursuing any statutory remedies against her for failure to pay those taxes. In her complaint, Thompson alleged (1) the Property is located within the boundaries of the St. Regis Reservation as established by the United States in the Treaty with the Seven Nations of Canada of 1796, 7 Stat. 55 (Treaty of 1796), (2) neither an act of Congress nor the 1816 Conveyance Agreements, to date, have altered the boundaries of the St. Regis Reservation as established by the Treaty of 1796, and (3) the Property is located within the jurisdictional boundaries of the St. Regis Reservation, not the County, for the purposes of taxation.

On October 1, 1992, the County removed the action to the United States District Court for the Northern District of New York and proceeded to file a motion to dismiss the complaint on several grounds. Specifically, the County contended the action was barred by the preclusive or res judicata effect of United States v. Franklin County, 50 F.Supp. 152 (N.D.N.Y.1943). In the alternative, the County argued that Thompson lacked standing as an individual member of the Tribe to assert a claim that ultimately depended on a tribal right: a challenge to the validity of land conveyances on Indian reservations under the Nonintercourse Act, 25 U.S.C. Sec. 177. 2 In turn, Thompson filed a motion to remand the case to state court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1447(d) on the

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ground that the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the action under the Tax Injunction Act, 28 U.S.C. Sec. 1341.

In its memorandum of decision, the district court denied Thompson's motion to remand the case to state court. See Thompson v. County of Franklin, No. 92-CV-1258, 1992 WL 554369, at * 10 (N.D.N.Y. Nov. 30, 1992). Specifically, the district court found that the Tax Injunction Act did not preclude federal jurisdiction in this matter. Thompson does not appeal the district court's denial of her motion to remand.

Turning next to the County's motion to dismiss, the district court found that Thompson's claim did indeed "turn[ ], in large part, upon whether the series of agreements, beginning in 1816, conveying the Indians' interest in the land of New York State, violated the Nonintercourse Act." The court reasoned that, "even though not mentioned in her complaint," an allegation that the 1816 Conveyance Agreements, on which the County relies for its taxation authority, violate the Nonintercourse Act was a "necessary component" of Thompson's claim. Viewing her action from this perspective, the district court concluded that Thompson was subject to the prudential standing requirements governing all private actions under the Nonintercourse Act, requirements that Thompson as an individual member of the Tribe could not satisfy. Accordingly, the district court dismissed the complaint for lack of standing and never reached the issue of whether her action was barred on the merits under the res judicata effect of Franklin County. Thompson appeals the district court's ruling that she lacks standing. Id. at * 10-* 12.


This appeal raises the issue of whether an individual member of an Indian tribe has standing to challenge the taxing power of a local government over her property which she alleges is located within the historical boundaries of an Indian reservation, but that was previously conveyed from the tribe to non-Indian land owners. Because we hold that an individual member of an Indian tribe has standing to challenge a local government's taxing power in cases, such as this one, where the individual plaintiff predicates that challenge on the jurisdictional boundaries of the Indian reservation itself, not the validity of the conveyance to non-Indians of land interests located within those boundaries, we reverse the district court's dismissal.

I. Standard of Review

As a preliminary matter, we note that the unsettled nature of the standing doctrine creates a need for some clarification of the parameters of our review. See Rent Stabilization Ass'n v. Dinkins, 5 F.3d 591, 594 (2d Cir.1993) ("standard of review of a dismissal for lack of standing is not quite as clear" as that under 12(b)(6), Fed.R.Civ.P.); 13 C. Wright, A. Miller & E. Cooper, Federal Practice and Procedure Sec. 3531, at 347-51 (2d ed. 1984) (Wright & Miller) (difficulties with the doctrine "inevitably beset any attempt to articulate and apply any clear principles of standing"). "Standing has been called one of 'the most amorphous [concepts] in the entire domain of public law.' " Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 99, 88 S.Ct. 1942, 1952, 20 L.Ed.2d 947 (1968). Simply put, " '[s]tanding' is not a term used for its precision." Graddick v. Newman, 453 U.S. 928, 938, 102 S.Ct. 4, 10, 69 L.Ed.2d 1025 (1981) (Rehnquist, J.).

The district court and the parties appear to treat the issue of Thompson's standing as properly raised on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), rather than as a defect in federal jurisdiction pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). While "we realize that dismissals for lack of standing may be made pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) rather than 12(b)(1)," Rent Stabilization, 5 F.3d at 594, the Supreme Court instructs us that the standing " 'inquiry involves both constitutional limitations on federal-court jurisdiction and prudential limitations on its exercise.' " Gladstone, Realtors v. Village of Bellwood, 441 U.S. 91, 99, 99 S.Ct. 1601, 1607, 60 L.Ed.2d 66 (1979) (quoting Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 498, 95 S.Ct. 2197, 2209, 45 L.Ed.2d 343 (1975)). Indeed, "standing 'is perhaps the most important of [the jurisdictional] doctrines.' " FW/PBS, Inc. v. City of Dallas, 493 U.S. 215, 231, 110 S.Ct. 596, 607, 107

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L.Ed.2d 603 (1990) (alteration in original) (quoting Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750, 104 S.Ct. 3315, 3324, 82 L.Ed.2d 556 (1984)). Accordingly, as Judge McCurn correctly noted in a prior opinion analyzing an individual member of an Indian tribe's standing to bring a claim under the Nonintercourse Act, "[t]he concept of standing--even its prudential dimension--is a limitation on federal court jurisdiction." Canadian St. Regis Band of Mohawk Indians v. State of New York, 573 F.Supp. 1530, 1538 (N.D.N.Y.1983) (emphasis added) (citing Gladstone, Realtors, 441 U.S. at 99, 99 S.Ct. at 1607; Warth, 422 U.S. at 498, 95 S.Ct. at 2204); see also National Wildlife Fed'n v. United States, 626 F.2d 917, 924 n. 13 (D.C.Cir.1980).

The established view that standing is at heart "a jurisdictional prerequisite to a federal court's deliberations," Hodel v. Irving, 481 U.S. 704, 711, 107 S.Ct. 2076, 2080, 95 L.Ed.2d 668 (1987), is of particular interest to us here, where the County asserts a procedural waiver argument. Specifically, the County contends that Thompson is procedurally barred from making certain arguments on appeal in support of her standing because she failed to raise them in the district court.

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